Author: Jill Daniels
Format: Oppositional essay film
Published: July 2023
A descriptive transcript can be accessed here.
> What aesthetic approaches may I adopt in my cinematic practice against the background of the looming climate catastrophe and economic crisis of global capitalism?
> How may I bring the past into the present without recourse to extensive exposition and archive footage?
> How might I move spectators to act in response to what they see and hear on screen?
Resisters is an essay film, located in Berlin and addressed to Rosa Luxemburg, the Marxist Revolutionary who was assassinated in Berlin in 1919. The key analytic approaches are located within the framework of film studies, trauma and memory studies, autobiography and theories of place, space and spectatorship. Positioning myself as a witness, my voice addresses the ghosts of the resisters in the past directly in the present tense, bearing in mind that as Doane says “There are always at least two temporalities at work in film. Accompanying the spectatorial experience of the present tense of the filmic flow is the recognition that the images were produced at a particular time, that they are inevitably stained with their own historicity” (Doane, 2002). The use of hybrid cinematic strategies of critical realism and poetic re-imagining, brings the force of memory and history into the present to encourage reflection and resistance and enables the circumvention of extensive use of archive footage and exposition. The film is part of my body of work that experiments with cinematic strategies in practice-led research beginning in 2009 with the start of my doctorate. The notion of experimental begins and ends with uncertainty rather than verisimilitude. Experimental essay films aim to open the window of uncertainty a little wider to offer an expanded discussion of the subject of the exploration. My aim in Resisters was to create a politically oppositional essay film where the human subjects are actively engaged in fighting for political change. My use of the second person singular, ‘you’ to address Luxemburg at the start of the film memorialises her as a historic political leader; in my use of ‘you’ to address past ‘resisters’ I am represented in my role as an imagined eyewitness. This may serve to remind spectators of their own role as witnesses to others’ lives. In my voiced addresses to the ghosts of resisters to a fascist past – there becomes a ghostly haunting where “the ghost presents itself as a sign to the thinker that there is a chance in the fight for the oppressed past” (Gordon, 1997). Nevertheless, the resisters are not fictional characters, and they, as well as Luxemburg are represented as ordinary human beings who were capable of heroic acts.
Documentary films, perceived as oppositional through their exploration of social or political inequities, injustice or the effects of catastrophic events, largely focus on the representation of human subjects as victims in order to create spectatorial empathy in the hope that this will move spectators to action. Jouko Aaltonen suggests that: “social victims, workers, the unemployed, the sick, ‘losers’ and dropouts are still popular subjects in documentaries all over the world” (Aaltonen, 2016, p. 175). Brian Winston argues that representing subjects as victims: “substitutes empathy for analysis, it privileges effect over cause, and therefore it seldom results in any […] actions taken in society as a result of the program to ameliorate the condition depicted” (Winston, 1988, p. 274). Judith Butler takes this negative view of empathy further, suggesting that although we may respond with empathy and outrage to tragic events with increased emotional argumentation, outrage without reflection is not transformed into a sustained political resistance (Butler, 2010, p. xvi).
My practice builds on key moments of turmoil and political change and on innovative films that have aimed to move spectators to action or resistance. In the 1920s after the Russian revolution, Soviet filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov and Alexander Medvedkin who were dedicated to building a new socialist society developed innovative aesthetic approaches. Vertov produced techniques such as sequences that ran backwards and experimented with camera angles. In Man With A Movie Camera (1929), a cinematic celebration of daily life and work in the Soviet Union, he used reflexive filmic techniques in the mediation of social relations in work and leisure, putting himself at the heart of the film. Medvedkin headed the Soviet agit-prop film train. The aim was to educate and inspire workers to promote the revolution and to deal with local problems such as bureaucracy, inefficiency, nepotism and in the process, obtain the improvement of rail transport. The films consisted of politically critical realist and satirical films devised by Medvedkin himself (Leyda, 1973 , p. 287). In Britain during the late 1960s, a time of heightened class struggle there was a significant growth in British independent filmmaking, including the production of realist campaigning films. Cinema Action, a collective, inspired by Medvedkin’s film train went to factories to film workers in struggle and then showed the films to the participants. Oliver Ressler’s series of films, Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart are constructed through observational footage of protestors and interviews, which is manipulated in varied ways, such as intermittently slowed or intercut with a poetic voice-over. He sometimes uses a female surrogate, who talks in fragments of words and phrases, such as: “Terror”, “Terraforming”, “Defiling”, “What will happen? What can happen?” “How can a particular future happen?”
The term essay film was originally coined by the German artist Hans Richter. In 1940, on the eve of the second world war Richter was facing what he perceived as a capitalism running amok. He argued that a new filmic language had to be developed to deal with this. He conceived of a language that would be capable of visualizing theoretical ideas and capable of dealing with complex processes such as the capitalist economy. “The essay film produces complex thought – reflections that are not necessarily bound to reality, but can also be contradictory, irrational, and fantastic” (Richter, 2017 ). The form of the essay film as conceived by Richter and which I explore in my practice, is a nonlinear, disjunctive structure augmented by its use of heterogenous materials that may be weaved together through montage and use of the subjective voice; it furthers speculation rather than certainty. In her discussion of the essay film Laura Rascaroli cites Theodor Adorno who argues that: “Discontinuity is essential to the essay; its concern is always a conflict brought to a standstill” (Adorno in Rascaroli, 2017). For Adorno the essay is a subversive method of thought which by moving through the fissures between the aesthetic and epistemological may undermine the dominant division of labour. If, as Adorno points out the antagonistic nature of capitalism is largely concealed, it follows that supressed conflict may not be revealed simply through a mimetic approach to the mediation of actuality. The essay film may be achieved through critical realism since in this context realism may not be pinned down to the solely mimetic. I would argue that the aesthetics of the essay film may therefore lead towards political resistance.
British filmmaker Ken Fero refers to his film practice as ‘documentary of force’ which he defines as: “a form of resistance using film as a tool to force debate and political change, as demanded by the film’s participants (Fero, 2018). He has made several films in a longitudinal project that explores the search for justice for black deaths in police custody. Injustice (2001), is a campaigning film, constructed through interviews, stills, graphics, archive footage of protest demonstrations, public meetings and rallies. Fero builds on this film in his later essayistic practice. Po Po (2012), is constructed through hybrid filmic strategies of critical realism and the poetic. Interviews, reprised from Injustice, are re-edited to form new sequences; Large intertitles of single words, such as “State”; “Monolith”; “IPCC”; “Control” break up the images. Other texts, often single words, punctuate the film giving limited expositional information. In observational sequences constructed through edited footage of demonstrations and rallies the sync sound is often replaced by Fero’s authorial reflexive voice-over. Repetition of footage from Injustice allows a reconsideration of the earlier film’s discourse, while ensuring that the continuing campaign to find justice is not forgotten. As Agamben argues, repetition has the force of emphasis and is not a return to the identical (Agamben, 2004, pp. 313-320).
Resisters incorporates footage from my two previous epistolic short films addressed to Luxemburg, also located in Berlin, Breathing Still (2018) and Breathing Still 2020 (2020); films that are constructed primarily through stills. In Resisters this footage is reworked, intercut with images of memorials; interviews; stills; political meetings and political demonstrations. In a similar methodology to Fero’s in the use of the authorial voice, I guide the spectator through the fragmented narrative. However, my role is a multi-faceted one: authorial, subject, interlocutor and imagined witness. In my authorial role as a voiced flâneuse I document a two-fold journey through Berlin, a geographical one and a psychic one; I reflect on Berlin’s turbulent history and resistance to fascism.
Film, Fine Art, Cultural and Media Studies
This research may add to knowledge through its contribution to the development of film theory and practice research, by participating in theoretical debates with film theorists and practitioners as well as postgraduate researchers. It may also encourage political debate about nationalism and current economic crisis of capitalism and political activity.
The film’s impact thus far is in its address to the general public at film festivals. For many of these screenings and events I discussed the film with audiences through Q&As. In other festivals I was invited to attend post screening discussions through a panel or workshop discussion online. I was also invited to screen the film at a public event in Chennai, India.
In Resisters my aim was to evoke the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg through bringing into the light the 1918/19 German revolution, anti-fascism under the Third Reich and resistance to nationalism today. In 2018 when my short film Breathing Still was released it was screened in several European film festivals. In post-screening discussions I realized that young audiences were hardly aware, if at all, of Rosa Luxemburg, who I position as my political exemplar in my films; but they wanted to hear about her. The world has certainly changed since then. Since the 2019 centenary of Luxemburg’s death in Berlin – the event closes Breathing Still 2020 and Resisters – Luxemburg’s political activism is more widely known and discussed.
The film is still under consideration for film festival screenings. Past screenings include:
> 11th Social Justice Film Festival, Chennai, India. 2022 (World Premiere)
> German International Ethnographic Film Festival, Götenburg. 2022. (European Premiere)
> Freedom Film Festival, Chennai, India. 2022. (Invited)
> Flight Film Festival, Genoa, Italy, 2022. In competition. Screening followed by Q&A.
> Helsinki Education Film Festival International, Finland, 2022. In competition. Screening followed by Q&S. The film will be disseminated to educational institutions over the course of the year and has been disseminated publicly and in online voting. The results will be distributed.
> Essex Film Festival, UK, 2022. In competition. The film will be shown online, then included in a travelling programme throughout the UK.
The film has also been screened at academic conferences, including:
> Radical Film Network Conference, Genoa, 2022
> Visible Evidence Documentary Conference, Gdansk, Poland, 2022. Followed by Q&A.
> International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy (IIPPE) Annual Conference, Bologna, Italy, 2022. Followed by Q&A
> MeCCSA Annual Conference, Aberdeen University, 2022.
The film is discussed in my forthcoming chapter ‘Cinematic Aesthetics of Resistance: Reframing the Nonfiction Oppositional Film’ in the edited collection Constructions of the Real: Intersections of Documentary-based Film Practice and Theory, to be published later in 2022 by Intellect.
Helsinki Education Film Festival International, to schools and higher education institutions
Radical Film Network
Aaltonen, J. (2016) ‘Weeping men and singing women: voices in Finnish documentaries’ in Studies in Documentary Film, VOL. 10, NO. 2, pp. 169-182. Routledge.
Agamben, G. (2004) ‘Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films’, Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, Tom McDonough (ed.). MIT Press, pp. 313-320.
Gordon, Avery F. (1997) Ghostly Matters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Butler, J. (2010) Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso.
Daniels, J. [Writer/Director]. (2020). Breathing Still 2020 [Video]. UK.
Daniels, J. [Writer/Director]. (2018). Breathing Still [Video]. UK.
Doane (2002) The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, The Archive. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Fero, K. (Writer/Director) (2020) Ultraviolence [Video]
Fero, K. (Writer/Director.) (2012) Po PO [Video] https://vimeo.com/73925091
Gordon, A. (1997) Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Leyda, J. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. (1973)  London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Ressler, O. [Writer/Director] (2016). Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart: Ende Gelände/(end of the road). [Video]. https://www.ressler.at/everythings_coming_together/
Vertov, D. (1929) [Director] Man With A Movie Camera. [DVD]
Winston, B. (1988). The Tradition of the Victim in Griersonian Documentary, in New Challenges for Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal, pp. 269–287. Oakland: University of California Press.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
After an initial ambivalence, I found that I really liked this dissonant film. Fortunately, I watched it twice before reading through the film-maker’s research statement. This gave me time to write two long sentences on how the film had struck me: “The film is a personal and poetic blend of soft-spoken narrative and beautifully presented imagery – layering the ‘everyday normal’ with resistance to oppression and destructiveness. Despite numerous present-day reference points, this visual essay tilts toward poignant reflections on past heroism and tragedy, paying homage to revolutionary martyrs – Rosa Luxemburg above all, but many more as well – against a subtly-presented panorama of modern German history.”
The research statement and film “evoke the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg through bringing into the light the 1918/19 German revolution, anti-fascism under the Third Reich and resistance to nationalism today.” Daniels seems intent to “create a politically oppositional essay film” that “brings the force of memory and history into the present to encourage reflection and resistance.” The film catalogues actions of young people from the generation after Luxemburg’s, who — in the 1930s and 1940s — shared her commitments and died resisting the Nazis. They are “ordinary human beings who were capable of heroic acts” – a stark contrast to what one historian tags as “ordinary Germans” committing unspeakable crimes.
“I guide the spectator through the fragmented narrative,” Daniels asserts in her research statement. The “characters” given the greatest voice are thoughtful anti-fascists. One is Walter, a university professor, perhaps in his 60s or early 70s. The other is a veteran of the radical student movement of the 1960s and now a leading activist in Omas Gegan Recht (Grannies Against the Right), participating in anti-fascist demonstrations and meetings. Both are deeply concerned about today’s dramatic resurgence of far-right bigotry and ultra-nationalism.
Walter is a university professor teaching the history of “twentieth century Germany, the Weimar republic, German Jews in exile, the emigration” of intellectuals Jews, socialists, Catholics, Protestants intent on stressing that “Germany and Germans were not Hitler.” They “wanted to save that [better] Germany for the future.” The immediate future turned out to be the Cold War division of Germany, and of Berlin, between Communist and capitalist sectors. Daniels films Walter poignantly recalling the inhumanity of the Berlin Wall.
The members of Grannies Against the Right, explains the other major figure in the film, “are together in a Social Democratic Party group of elder women” who come out – “with their lifelong knowledge” – to talk to the public about the terrible dangers posed to Germany by the upwelling of extreme right-wing ideology, activity, and organizations. She expresses a deep desire to nurture a connection “between young and old.”
Those who have died and those who have aged are the primary voices in this film. The voices of those in their teens and twenties and thirties are absent – although we see their faces, here and there, in some of the demonstrations and meetings. Does this flow from the film-maker’s generational location, or from her assessment?
Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
Resisters is a well-crafted, serious investigation of Rosa Luxemburg’s philosophy and activism. As noted by the author, Luxemburg’s work has been underrepresented in political and philosophical debates and the film has immense value in highlighting the importance of Luxemburg’s life and practice. The essay film deftly combines various forms and styles including observational documentary style footage, poetic passages, historical information and personal direct voice over. These seemingly disparate styles are woven together with great skill in a way that the film never feels uneven or disjointed, which is a not insignificant achievement. The multi-faceted approach to the essay film brings Luxemburg’s antifascist activism into the 21st century at a time when it is ever so clearly needed. The film is a vital addition to the contemporary canon of radical filmmaking.
The accompanying statement is well written. The theoretical, political and stylistic concerns of the author are clearly conveyed. The statement helps illuminate the screenwork and it was a pleasure to read. A necessarily brief history of the radical essay film does well to position to work both historically and in relation to contemporary practice. It was particularly good to see an analysis of Fero’s work in relation to Daniels’ own practice, as an interesting and relevant contemporary example of the form. An interesting definition of experimentation is given in the context section. The author states that “The notion of experimental begins and ends with uncertainty rather than verisimilitude”. This is a fascinating and unique definition which deserves a bit of unpacking. I would like to see this definition supported by references to how this definition has developed. This could perhaps come from the author’s previous work or other scholars. This definition of experimental is one worth pursuing further. Whilst the expansion of this definition is not essential for the publication of the work, it would be a welcome addition. The framing of the essay films central subject and the author’s ambition to shift from the “representation of human subjects as victims” to an approach that frames the progressive action of activists to inspire action and resistance is a particular highlight. As Judith Butler was referenced, the author may be interested in her 2020 monograph The Force of Non-Violence (of course, the author may well be very familiar with this work, and if so, apologies).
I am happy to recommend the Screenwork for publication without amendments. I look forward to reading Daniels’ forthcoming publication Cinematic Aesthetics of Resistance: Reframing the Nonfiction Oppositional Film.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.